How Evergreen Church braved the elements to show and share the love of Christ
Co-authored by: Pastor Josh Friend and Dan Veeneman
Pictured above: Pastor Friend holds a portion of the harvest from the Eden Community Gardens, a teaching and healing garden project.
Fort McMurray, a small city situated about 450km Northeast of Edmonton, is a unique place. It is the largest municipality in Canada in terms of land area and is also home to the northernmost CRC congregation in Canada. Believe it not, it is also quite culturally diverse, with as many languages and cultures represented as there are in Toronto! Fort McMurray has also played a central role in driving the economy of Alberta with its vast oil and gas resources.
In 2016, a large forest fire ravaged the town, and large parts of the city were destroyed. The fire made news all over the country, and the images and stories were shared all over social media. The fires had a deep impact on the psyche of the community. While the community was slowly able to rally, and “Fort Mac Strong” became a rally cry to gather around, the scars and memories of the fire did not fade over time.
It was only a couple of years later, in 2020, when a 100-year ice breakup on the river that borders the downtown caused major flooding. Evacuees who had just had their homes back – some for just weeks – found themselves evacuated again. This time, as the downtown was flooded, it took with it grocery stores, food banks, nonprofits and threatened the hospital. Sandbagging teams were deployed to keep back rising waters all while wearing the newly mandated masks to combat COVID-19. Waters subsided and the river broke, but not without leaving millions of dollars in damage, again. Four of the main grocery stores were empty and five churches were left with no building to serve from. The flood waters also infiltrated and damaged the town’s water treatment system, so the entire area was on a boil water advisory.
Things were looking bleak in Fort McMurray. With recovery efforts being slowed by Covid, and the oil and gas industry not as strong as it had been in the past, there was not much left to cling to.
While it would seem as though things were working against this northern Alberta community, Evergreen Community CRC saw opportunity. Covid had done much to change the church and its ‘way of life’. Members were yearning for a chance to be connected again, and a chance to help and show love for their neighbour.
So, the church took this opportunity to stand in the gap for their community. Evergreen welcomed long trailers filled with food and cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and water bottles – and so much more. While Evergreen is a small congregation, they worked tirelessly to support the broader community.
“It would be impossible to report on all that God was doing in Fort McMurray with the help of those who came alongside us, like the deacons and churches from our province and around the country,” shared Pastor Josh Friend. Monies received immediately went into a benevolence style account to be able to help with specific, one-off needs. All food received was stored, delivered, and served to 1000’s of people downtown, first during the downtown cleanup, and for two summers as a local soup kitchen. Items received were given out to those in need, many who lost everything. It was a breath of fresh air to many. A glass of cool water to some. About $15,000 total came into the benevolence fund and several thousand dollars’ worth of food. A portion of the funds used were from a Covid-19 Grant, offered by Diaconal Ministries Canada and World Renew Canada.
Through the ongoing challenges in their community, Evergreen CRC has developed new relationships with people in their city as well as with other non-profits and organizations, all because they were able to use the gifts they were entrusted with to show people the love of God.
A local downtown church known as the ‘soup kitchen’ church was unable to afford both the insurance and the rebuilding of their kitchen for several years. Evergreen was able to come alongside and provide food for their stop-gap idea – a food truck! Weekly, Evergreen would staff the truck and serve over 100 meals on some days! Food was brought for other volunteers from Monday to Friday, all summer long.
There were a handful of projects that Evergreen was able to support financially even though they did not have the workforce (or typically the finances) to do so. During the downtown flooding, a volunteer had almost $2000 worth of tools stolen, which he had donated to a worksite that had flooded. Evergreen heard of the story and was able to help supply tools for the crew to continue volunteering that day. They also heard of a family who had special needs for air purification in their flooded home. Insurance would not cover both the electrical panel and the air exchange, and so Evergreen was able to help purchase the panel to help provide a safe and healthy home for that family for the future. Evergreen purchased and installed a wheelchair ramp that would not be covered by an insurance company, all for a total stranger who wondered “why.” One young family, who in the midst of COVID discovered a diagnosis that would change their path, found family in the church; a place they would never have thought to turn to and whom Evergreen may have never met.
Another unique ministry opportunity that came out of the multiple disasters to hit the community is that of a Musical Instrument “library”. When the only music store in town closed, there was a definite need in the community. Pastor Friend started the library by lending out his own instruments but has plans to grow the service.
Through the ongoing challenges in their community, Evergreen CRC has developed new relationships with people in their city as well as with other non-profits and organizations, all because they were able to use the gifts they were entrusted with to show people the love of God. “This is a beautiful picture of the gospel,” Pastor Friend declared. “Helping one so that they can help another.” R.C. Sproul once said that the gospel is “one hungry beggar telling another hungry beggar where to find food.” This is precisely the story of what God has been doing in Fort McMurray through these natural disasters and Evergreen continues to be a part of it!
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